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This book ,by Emma Rutherford, was an unexpected and very welcome Christmas gift this year made to me by a very dear friend. It is the most beautiful and sumptuous book on silhouettes I have ever seen. I have always been interested in silhouettes as they have always been present in  my homes. I have a small collection of family silhouettes dating from the early to mid 19th century,and even had one taken as a child. This is one from my collection and it dates from around 1810:

(Do remember you can enlarge all the pictures on this blog merely by clicking on them)

But it is the book’s fascinating  explanation of the history  of silhouettes that I have found very intriguing.

Silhouettes in the 18thcentury  were known in England as “shadows” or  “shades” and in the early 19th century as “profiles’. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to her friends in 1807, asking them to

send their profile

to her.

In France they gained the term “silhouette” by association with Etienne de Silhouette who was appointed France’s Comptroller General( an equivalent post to our Chancellor of the Exchequer) during the year  1759 by Louis XIV. He levied land tax on France’s nobles and reduced their pensions, and furthermore hurt their pockets by taxing all external signs of wealth. Opposition from the ancien regime,the nobility and the church-previously exempt from such audacious taxes -was loud. After only eight months in office he was forced to retire from his post to his château in the countryside.

There are two theories  regarding the adoption of the term silhouette for this type of portraiture, and both reflect Monsieur Silhouette’s unpopularity. The first  comments upon  the fact that taking a silhouette is a very quick process and as such it reflected Etienne de Silhouette’s very short tenure in office. The second theory has it that as this type of portraiture was, in it’s simplest state, the cheapest form of portraiture available at the time, it deserved to be named for him.  Etienne ‘s hated penny-pinching methods of raising tax may therefore have associated his name for ever with this type of portraiture for, in France,  the phrase a la silhouette came to mean to do anything ” on the cheap”.

It may interest you to know that the “science” of physiognomy used silhouettes to determine a sitter’s character. Physiognomy is of unknown origin,but  it formed an integral part of ancient Greek medicine,and the revival of its popularity in the 18th century was attributable to the idea that the study and judgement of a person’s outer appearance – particularly the face- would give  insight into that person’s character.  Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) used the term silhouette in continental  editions of his very influential book, Essays on Physionomy ; Designed to Promote  the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind (17 75).

In English versions  the term was translated as “shades”.This was a sensationally successful book both in Europe, England and the United States.By the middle of the nineteenth century over 150 edition had been published.  As Emma Rutherford writes:

It is easy to imagine that,at the height of the book’s popularity to turn sideways for others observation was to ask for analysis of one’s personality. Later in the 1830s Charles Darwin found that the captain of the Beagle had done just that:

“Afterwards on becoming  very intimate with Fitz-Roy I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater and was convinced that he could judge of a man’s character by the outline of his features and he doubted  whether any one with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.”


I wonder if Ang Lee and Emma Thompson were thus trying to tell us something about Willoughby’s appearance when Marianne Dashwood takes his shadow in their adaptation of Sense and Sensibility in a scene reminiscent of this plate fromLavater’s book…Hmmm…..?

The book is sumptuously illustrated with the many, many different types of silhouettes, a term that was eventually popularised in an unsuspecting England, by the French artist Augustin Edouart in the 1820s, and describes in great detail the many different methods of taking a “profile”.  There were those made by cutting paper

….those painted on paper….

and on the reverse side of glass, or on ivory.

I adore this foursome : it reminds me  forcibly of Admiral and Mrs Croft , Captain Wentworth and Edward Wentworth of Persuasion.

We are all of course familiar with this paper silhouette which is possibly of  Jane Austen:

It was found in a second edition of Mansfield Park with the inscription, “L’amiable Jane“.

This book is marvellously readable, and is sumptuously illustrated. It will enchant anyone interested in silhouettes, and clearly explains the very many different types which were made. The explanation of the development of this form of portraiture in this book is admirably and carefully done. The wonderfully reproduced silhouettes also give us the chance to examine in exquisite detail tiny aspects of domestic life in the late 18th and early 19th century as recorded in them, as here demonstrated by this silhouette of a lady serving herself  a cup of chocolate.

I have lost myself in this absorbing  book over the Christmas season and I can highly recommend it.

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